August 23, 2018

A year ago, Brenda Carmona escaped an attempted assault. The experience left the Dallas high school junior determined to pursue a future in criminology or law “to fight for justice for all the people who aren’t as lucky as I was.” The teen admits she wasn’t sure about the steps she needed to take to realize her ambitions until she spent the day at the Cutting Edge Youth Summit at SMU.

“It gave me so much to think about, as far as considering which are the best colleges and programs to help me achieve my goals,” she says. “And it also made me think about the possibility of getting scholarships and what I need to do to qualify.”

Now in its seventh year, the summit brought nearly 300 students, parents and community leaders from historically underrepresented communities to campus on April 21 during SMU’s Founders’ Day Weekend. Conference sessions provided insights about college admission, scholarships, science and technology-focused careers, social entrepreneurship and more.

Candice Bledsoe ’07, founder and executive director of the Action Research Center, which conducts research in schools, communities and nonprofits to advance student and community leadership development, created the one-day event. The program is designed to help middle and high school students with big dreams visualize a future powered by higher education. Community college transfer students planning to continue their education at a four-year institution are also welcome.

During discussions and interactive programs, SMU professors, staff and alumni joined a host of community experts contributing their insights about exploring career paths, developing leadership skills and making the most of a university experience.

Students also learn about the avenues open to them for affording college. At SMU, for example, three out of four students receive scholarships and/or financial aid.

“Our message to students is that no dream is out of reach,” says Bledsoe, who teaches in SMU’s Master of Liberal Arts program in the Simmons School of Education and Human Development. “We give them advice on the college application process as well as tips for seeking out scholarships. We also talk to them about channeling their passions as social innovators and leaders in their schools and the community. Perhaps equally important, students are able to ‘see’ themselves on a college campus and realize they have a rightful place here.”

The information shared at the summit “fills in the gaps,” says Saella Ware, who graduated from Mansfield High School in May. “I wasn’t sure about all the steps before I came, but the speakers provided a sort of layout of when to take the SAT and ACT, finish your application, apply for scholarships and submit financial aid information. That helps for getting things done in a timely manner and establishing helpful habits prior to attending college.”

It’s a learning opportunity for parents, too, Bledsoe says. “Parents are often overwhelmed because their children are preparing for such a different experience than they’ve had. Those parents aren’t always sure how to navigate the complexities of the system, so they’re grateful to get information and connect with people who can help them.”

James Muhammad found the grant and scholarship information particularly useful as his son, Jamaal, begins his junior year at the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy in Dallas. Muhammad has always been actively involved in his son’s education, and when a teacher sent an email about the summit, he jumped at the chance to attend.

“The sessions helped clarify the steps he needs to take this year to prepare for the future,” he says.

According to the Action Research Center, the research arm of Bledsoe’s program, the Cutting Edge Youth Summit has helped 1,903 middle, high school and community college students since it was launched in 2011. Ninety-nine percent of student participants have earned a high school diploma, and 90 percent have gone on to college.

The University offers a portfolio of opportunities like the summit that show ambitious younger students from all walks of life that a college education is attainable.

Perhaps the best-known college access program is Upward Bound. This year, SMU celebrates 50 years of graduates of the program geared for high school students from low-income families or from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. As students build the academic credentials they’ll need to succeed in a college classroom, they also develop the confidence and resilience they’ll rely on to attain goals throughout their lives.

High school students from Dallas, Garland, Lancaster and Duncanville school districts participate in SMU’s year-round Upward Bound and Upward Bound Math Science programs. In-school tutoring, college visits, Saturday academies and regular mentoring are designed to amp up students’ precollege scholastic performance and prepare them for postsecondary pursuits.

The proof of success is in the numbers: 90 percent of participants attend college after high school graduation.

Even a campus visit can have a huge impact on young minds. “Just being on the SMU campus is exciting to so many students attending the summit,” Bledsoe says. “It can jumpstart the process of thinking about the future and saying, ‘Yes, I can see myself here.’”

SMU welcomes hundreds of youngsters from Dallas-area schools to campus each year so they can become acquainted with college life. One recent example is a special experience created by the University for about 200 eighth-graders and their teachers from Dallas’ Rusk Middle School. When the students dramatically improved their test scores, their teachers wanted to build on that academic momentum and reward their hard work with a trip to a college campus. But school district budget challenges stalled the plan.

That’s when SMU came to the rescue by arranging a campus visit like no other. The Rusk students participated in science and engineering demonstrations, visited with Head Football Coach Sonny Dykes and tossed some footballs in Ford Stadium, explored the campus during a scavenger hunt and learned about the importance of a college education from SMU President R. Gerald Turner.

At the end of the day, many of the youngsters vowed to return – as SMU students.

“Our message to students is that no dream is out of reach. We give them advice on the college
application process as well as tips for seeking out scholarships. We also talk to them about
channeling their passions as social innovators and leaders in their schools and the community.
Perhaps equally important, students are able to ‘see’ themselves on a college campus
and realize they have a rightful place here.”

As the daughter of parents serving in the military, Bledsoe grew up primarily in Germany. She learned the language and took advantage of the European location to travel extensively on the continent. That early exposure to different cultures shaped her global perspective and belief that travel is an invaluable teaching tool. Today, family vacations with husband Horace and their children Jeremiah, 14, and Jasmine, 8, often include tours of historical sites. They’ve recently traveled the path of the civil rights movement and visited the Lincoln Home historic district in Springfield, Illinois.

Her worldview also informs an international component of each youth summit. This year the focus was on opportunities across the globe in engineering and technology fields.

Bledsoe’s aim with the summit is to get kids excited about college the way that passion was ignited in her as a youngster.

In a thought-provoking presentation at TEDxSMUWomen in 2016, Bledsoe said, “To know who I am, you must know my grandmother.” Women’s issues were the focus of the event. Bledsoe, founder of the Black Women’s Collective, a creative arts group devoted to sharing the stories of women of color, discussed the power of narrative to bring the experiences of the underrepresented to light, an academic passion inspired by the matriarch.

She describes her grandmother, Johnnie Mae “M’dear” Lucas, as “her first teacher.” Lucas grew up during segregation, with few higher education options open to her, but she never gave up on her dream of becoming a teacher. When she decided to pursue a master’s degree, her entire family relocated to Houston so that she could attend Texas Southern University, a historically black public university. The trailblazer who prized her degrees made sure her granddaughter always understood the value of an education.

When Bledsoe was living abroad, summer vacations were reserved for spending time with Lucas in Texas.

Thanks to her grandmother, she was steeped in great literature from an early age, especially the poetry of Langston Hughes. Bledsoe remembers hearing her friends playing outside while she was inside, following her grandmother’s “summer school” curriculum, which included a robust reading list and book reports. One of the books she was assigned to read was a biography of Mary McCloud Bethune, a story that became pivotal to her own story.

Bethune was “one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the 20th century,” according to the National Women’s Museum. “The college she founded set educational standards for today’s black colleges, and her role as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave African Americans an advocate in government.”

“I was blown away when I first read about her and how she used education to open doors of opportunity for others,” Bledsoe says. “Her commitment to education, access and the community has inspired my work to this day.”

Bledsoe’s grandmother died at 97, but she lived long enough to see her favorite pupil earn three degrees: Bledsoe received a bachelor’s degree from Baylor University, her MLS from SMU and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Southern California.

Candice Bledsoe and members of the SMU community shared their insights with students attending the Cutting Edge Youth Summit at SMU in April.

Her academic research explores the impact of race, gender and class in higher education contexts. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment of the Humanities, New Leadership Academy, National Center for Institutional Diversity, University of Michigan and Boone Texas Project for Human Rights Education.

In 2013, she was honored with a Profiles of Community Leadership Award, presented by the SMU Women’s Symposium. The award celebrates the accomplishments of women who have made a significant impact on the city of Dallas and on the quality of life for women overall.

So much of what drives Bledsoe circles back to the example set by her grandmother and the wisdom she shared.

“She taught me that without a college education, my options would be limited, and that stuck with me,” she says.

It’s a message she stresses today when guiding aspiring college students.

The right mentor can make all the difference, says James Samuel ’19, a double major in political science and advertising at SMU. He’s in his thirties and met Bledsoe through her husband. Samuel had attended a Texas community college and was on the fence about pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

“I kept second-guessing myself and making excuses, like ‘I’m not ready’ or ‘I can’t afford it.’ Candice talked me through that. She told me I had to get out there and try.”

He did, and SMU has been a great fit for him.

“It’s like you become a member of the family at SMU. Everyone is so willing to help you succeed,” Samuel says. “When you show a passion for a subject, there is an army of people ready to help you pursue your goals. I never thought I’d have the opportunities I’ve had at SMU, and I’ll be forever grateful to Candice for her confidence in me.”